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Five Reasons Your Rubric Needs a Makeover: #HackingPBL

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How will my students and I know they are learning what they are supposed to learning? How will I assess this?

These are easily two of the more popular questions that emerge as educators make the shift to project based learning, and some form of a rubric (and its effective use) is usually a big part of the answer.

As I continue to analyze rubrics (or adaptations of rubrics) there are a few specific look-fors that help to immediately indicate whether the tool is spot on, or if some revisions are necessary. Here are five look-fors that suggest your rubric needs a makeover.

Problem #1: Your rubric closely resembles your project’s directions. 

If your rubric looks like project directions regurgitated in another format (as was the case with many of my faulty rubrics), you could be promoting compliance, not creative learning. There is a strong chance your students will be able to “play the game” and earn an A by simply following what has been outlined for them in their rubric/directions: appropriately title your work, include three photographs related to your topic, include at least ten adjectives, cite five sources, etc. Furthermore, in the end, all finished products will probably look quite similar.

Make it Work

Use these two questions to guide your decision-making: Can your students earn an A without understanding the material? Can your students understand the material but not earn an A? If your answer to any of these questions is “Yes!” there is a problem.

Your rubric’s left-hand column should contain the content you want students to know, understand, and be able to do as a result of the project. To make things easy, each “box” can contain an entire academic standard (if it’s short and simple), or a longer standard that calls for multiple actions can be broken down across different boxes with each action having its own box.  

The autonomy students possess in reaching these goals should be determined by the project’s directions, not the rubric. However, make sure your students can actually satisfy the rubric as a result of following the directions.

Problem #2: Your rubric goes on, and on, and on.

For one reason or another (possibly to hold students accountable), you have found the need to assess (and maybe, grade) each and every aspect of the project based learning experience. Therefore, rather than clarifying the targets for which students should be aiming, your rubric reads more like an endless list of requirements that obscures the why behind the work. In the end the rubric does more harm than good, and it could be a reason why students start to dislike PBL.

Make it Work

If you have a rubric that doesn’t seem right, give it to your students and ask them what they think. You’ll be surprised at the insight they demonstrate when analyzing and co-creating the manner in which they will be assessed.

Focus your rubric’s left-hand column on what should be the students’ main takeaways from the project. Leave out more “shallow” items (e.g., the parts of an ecosystem) that will be taught and learned within the context of a main takeaway (e.g., demonstrating a deeper understanding of how ecosystems function).

If you have not taught it, don’t grade it. This point may sound obvious, but I cannot remember how many times I graded students on collaboration while neglecting to provide explicit instruction in this area. Grading something that has not been taught will most likely lead to anxiety, not learning.

Problem #3: Your rubric doesn’t clarify what exemplary work looks like.

Your left-hand column has the appropriate information, and for each goal you have included descriptors for what exemplary work involves (think, a 4 on a scale of 1-4). And, possibly, you have also added descriptors for the other numbers as well. However, after all of the hard work you’ve put in, you hand the rubric over to your students and they appear a bit lost. The same mistakes are popping up over and over, and everyone has an entirely different idea of what a 4 should look like.

Make it Work

Rather than telling your students what ideal work involves, have them uncover these features by analyzing exemplars. These features can populate the “4 column” of the rubric. As a result, students will have a clearer picture of what should be included in their work.

You may understand what is in the rubric’s left-hand column (which was derived from standards), but your students may not. Consider rewording this information in student-friendly language.

If the majority of your students are committing the same errors, there could potentially be a content problem, not an assessment (rubric) problem. Take a short “break” from the project to conduct a mini-lesson that targets the problematic content. Follow up with some form of assessment to determine next steps.

Problem #4: Your rubric is an assessment of learning, not for learning.

In other words, the rubric makes roughly two appearances. The first is when it is given to students (and maybe, briefly reviewed) when the project is rolled out. The second appearance is when students receive their grades, after which everyone promptly moves on to the next learning experience. In instances such as these, the rubric (and its accompanying grades) is used as a weapon to hold students accountable for their learning, as opposed to being leveraged as a tool that can assist in the learning process.

Make it Work

Whenever students are working on the project, make sure their rubric is visible. This way, they can work with their goals in mind.

As students work, continuously provide feedback. Grant Wiggins defined feedback as, “information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.” So, on the rubric, think about leaving a space where feedback can be provided pertaining to each goal.

Once students receive their “final” grades, consider having a system in place that allows for them to resubmit their work to potentially earn higher grades.

Problem #5: Your rubric wouldn’t work with your students.

There is a chance all or some of your students, because they are too young and/or don’t have the literacy skills, are not capable of handling a text-heavy rubric. Here it could be tempting to forego using a rubric, or just forget about project based learning altogether. However, rather than proclaiming, “A rubric wouldn’t work with my students,” the attitude should be, “How can I make it work?” All students, no matter what they initially bring to the table, still need to know the targets for which they are aiming.

Make it Work

Keep the text to a minimum, focusing on key words that are reviewed with students.

Whenever possible, use illustrations to replace or accompany the rubric’s text. For added ownership, think about having students be the ones to create these illustrations.

Different technologies can assist in meeting students’ needs. For example, text-to-speech can read to them an electronic version of the rubric, and QR codes can link to video explanations.

In the End

These are five of the major red flags (along with possible solutions) I consistently find when looking through rubrics.

And, in my opinion, it is not hard to view the traditional rubric as a tool that is archaic and in desperate need of an upgrade. Even when it is done “correctly,” it is chock-full of columns, boxes, and teacher-made descriptors, which usually do more to promote compliance and anxiety than creative learning.

In Chapter 6 of Hacking Project Based Learning, Erin and I rethink the traditional rubric from the ground up with the creation of the Progress Assessment Tool (PAT). We look forward to sharing it with everyone!

What are your thoughts on rubrics? How have you seen them done effectively?


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I am the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. I regularly speak, present, and conduct workshops related to my writings and professional experiences.

When I am not working, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on my computer, and provoking my three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Saturday, 16 December 2017